People who don’t get heard have a tendency to shout. Eventually they get mad. For too long, foreign policy experts have stuck their fingers in their ears when confronted by citizens ambivalent about playing global police officer.
Republican Donald Trump is channeling their voices through his electric bullhorn, whipping up the crowd and questioning the validity of institutions like NATO. Regardless of whether one likes the messenger, it’s time to listen as we honor the nation’s 240th birthday.
Trump is right when he claims that a policy that looks out for “America first” is based on a “timeless principle.” When George Washington penned his famous Farewell Address of 1796, he asked his Revolutionary War comrade Alexander Hamilton to edit the speech. Hamilton crystallized the president’s sentiment against foreign entanglements — then shared by most — into the “Great Rule.”
“Interweaving our destiny” with others, Washington and Hamilton argued, would “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice.” America should therefore pursue economic integration with the world, but maintain strict neutrality in its feuds.
John Quincy Adams reiterated this principle on July 4, 1821, when he reminded Congress that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
At the start of the Cold War, President Harry Truman proposed a new great rule to replace the old. Like Washington, Truman had public opinion behind him. Following a vigorous debate, the U.S. Congress accepted Truman’s contention that it was imperative “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
Citizens agreed that it was the United States’ job to defend the so-called Free World — alone, if necessary. Anything less was deemed un-American. Decision-makers stoked this sentiment to forestall isolationism. They encouraged Manichean thinking to “scare the hell out of the American people,” as Sen. Arthur Vandenberg put it.
The Truman Doctrine meant global military assistance on a scale never before seen. Since 1947, America has fought more foreign wars than any other nation. It maintains large permanent bases throughout Europe and Asia. As a former secretary of State, Hillary Clinton knows the Truman Doctrine fostered a safer world. She advocates staying the course preferred by establishment Democrats and Republicans, arguing that change will result in “chaos.”
Yet the conditions that gave rise to the doctrine no longer exist, as citizens intuit. Europe and Asia have rebuilt, territorial invasions on a continental scale have vanished, physical conflict between nations has plummeted since 1947 and the United States is no longer the sole prosperous country in a world bankrupted by war. Meanwhile, Americans continue doing a grubby security job that leaves many feeling tired and dirty.
As a consequence, Washington’s advice feels relevant again. In 2011, Libertarian congressman Ron Paul called for closing all foreign bases. Fellow politicians derided him, but many voters found his arguments arresting. They also were drawn to Bernie Sanders, who said during the primaries that America “should not be policeman of the world.”
Hyper-conscious of economic insecurity since the Great Recession of 2008 and in hock for college tuition, millennials are perplexed at the 4-1 disparity between what America and most of its NATO partners spend on defense. Their parents, displaced in the workforce by globalization, don’t understand what the United States gets out of the trade agreements that government officials deem necessary. The persistence of terrorism despite 15 years of war makes young and old alike wonder whether we should accelerate military interventionism or end it.
In 2013, for the first time since the Pew organization began polling Americans on the question five decades earlier, the majority (52%) said the United States should “mind its own business” and allow other countries to get along on their own. Today, Pew finds, the number has risen to 57%.
The public is abandoning the Cold War consensus. Americans are sick of being told they must pay for policies they don’t understand by elites whose explanations make less and less sense and whose children rarely serve in the armed forces.
Persistent elitism triggers reactive populism. Voters turn to political outsiders when insiders won’t listen. There are now more people registered independent (42%) than Democrat (29%) or Republican (26%). Britain’s revolt against the European Union, opposed by responsible leaders but approved by an alienated populace, should be considered an early warning signal.
Historians agree that the Truman Doctrine stabilized world politics. The question going forward is how long much longer the United States can carry the burden as it’s currently distributed without destabilizing itself. The nation’s 240th year is a time to think as boldly — and carefully — about the future as our founders did.
Elizabeth Cobbs is the Melbern Glasscock chair of American history at Texas A&M and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Her documentary, “American Umpire,” airs on public television in the fall.